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Times of Grace: Neurosis in Concert at 30

All photos by Alyssa Herrman/Foto Phortress
All photos by Alyssa Herrman/Foto Phortress

The first time I saw Neurosis live was in 1996, the year the band released Through Silver In Blood. I was on a road trip from my east coast hometown, and we ended up in San Francisco. The city paper said Neurosis was playing that night, and although I wasn’t too familiar with anything beyond TSIB, I hoofed it to the venue. The crowd was made up of crusty gutterpunks, greasy thrashers, street hippies, misanthropes and miscreants of all different stripes, and various people who were mixtures of all of this and more. It was like a tribe unto itself, something I had not seen before in the fairly tame Virginia scene I was from at the time. The band seemed an extension of its audience while appearing and sounding utterly alien at the same time. Visual projections of jarring psychedelia and R Budd Dwyer committing suicide over and over played on a sheet behind the band as they pounded the crowd with sludged out riffs intermingled with solemn interludes, adding their now patented tribal drumming with samples and keyboard manipulations. I had never seen or heard anything like it, and I was hooked.

That was 20 years ago. Neurosis have woven their own unique tapestry, adding experimental folk, doom, and industrial threads to the raw hardcore punk fabric they began with. After putting out several more studio efforts that continued to break new ground, spawning imitators as well as the post metal sub-genre, and influencing numerous current acts such as Mastodon and YOB, Neurosis celebrated their 30th year as a band earlier this month with three nights of shows in their Bay Area home featuring opening acts such as Sleep, Vhol, Alaric, Shellac, Converge, and Negative Approach. The band made the weekend extra special by playing set lists featuring songs from each album they have recorded, some of which hadn’t been played live in 25 years. It is rare indeed for a band to stick together and evolve in the way that Neurosis has while maintaining artistic integrity–rarer still when you consider just how long 30 years is in the music business. They had good reason to celebrate, so my friends and I did the drive down to SF from Oregon for the first night to join in.

Neurosis could not have existed without the Bay Area; its influence can be felt in the looming fog and cold, the clanging whirr of constant human “progress”, and the sociopolitical history of the community as a whole. Though technically the band originated across the bay in Oakland, San Francisco is essentially their back yard, so holding the event at the Regency Ballroom in SF made sense. The theater is chock full of dramatic 20s style lighting, Freemason symbols and hidden rooms, evens a lodge upstairs where the masons held their secret rituals. Once inside, we browsed the good sized merch area then headed into the ballroom proper for the opening acts. The crowd possessed more of a family backyard BBQ attitude than the typical metal show. People who grew up in the Bay Area mingled with people who flew from across the country and beyond, and members of all the acts for tonight were walking through chatting as if they were there as fans themselves.

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Cali/Oregon thrash/punk outfit Vhol took the stage first to a still-gathering crowd and, launched into ‘The Desolate Damned’ from their new album Deeper Than Sky. Vocalist Mike Scheidt (YOB) took full advantage of not having a guitar in his hands tonight by pumping his fists at the sky and exhorting the crowd between wails. Guitarist John Cobbett (Hammers of Misfortune) was a treat to watch, as he is a classical shredder, yet tempered with enough restraint and good riffage to keep it varied and interesting. Bassist Sigried Shie (Hammers) and drummer Aesop Dekker (Agalloch) both looked like they were having a literal blast as they laid down the foundation for Cobbett and Scheidt. They finished banging through a set filled with songs from their debut as well as their new album, and were well received by the now full venue. It was my first time seeing Vhol, and I’m looking forward to see them again hopefully very soon.

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Sleep’s stage was set by a crew including Neurosis member Scott Kelly’s son Damon, who could also be seen later working the soundboard for his father’s band (when I said the place tonight had a family vibe, I meant it). The band played a NASA recording of a space mission over the PA to bring the mood. The crowd was chilled out and suitably medicated well before guitarist Matt Pike and bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros appeared, joined by Jason Roeder of Neurosis on drums pulling double duty for the night.

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A few key things about Sleep live: one, they throw massive amounts of amps and cabs onstage, usually a rented backline I would imagine, but that night rumor had it that the huge Tetris guitar rig we were seeing was Pike’s personal collection. Either way, the guitar and bass rigs were monolithic, like some bizarre acoustic weaponry from another world. Second, there is always massive amounts of marijuana smoke in the air when they play, and this held true: Sleep played favorites like “Dragonaut” and “Sonic Titan” while all manner of smoking accessories were passed around the crowd. Cisneros looked blissed out as he worked his Rickenbacker, and Pike conjured his riff magic like always.

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A special word should be said for Roeder. Even though Sleep and Neurosis are not known for technical wankery, his innate sense of space and timing make him a perfect fit for Sleep, while his chops really shine with Neurosis and their hardcore tribal sludge. Dynamics and patience go a long way towards making a song memorable, and he is an understated master of both. The combination of the Sabbath-on-steroids songs, totally ridiculous (and awesome) volume, and weed fog in the air added up to a roaring Frankenstein of a creation. There is something addicting about subjecting yourself to high decibels, particularly when the songs are so good, and seeing Sleep live definitely scratches that itch.

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The house was full and eager after Sleep was over. Keyboardist/sampler/wizard Noah Landis appeared at the front of the stage, made a gesture of thanks to the entire room, and the lights went down for Neurosis. When the opening sample for “Lost” filled the air, the cheers almost drowned out the rest of the intro. After Roeder and bassist Dave Edwardson slowly built the song over crawling noise from guitarists/vocalists Steve von Till and Scott Kelly, it collapsed into bludgeoning madness until the second half, when the band unleashed a heaving, breathing riff following another brief intro by Roeder and Edwardson. This was actually the first tune I ever heard by Neurosis (a friend had the tape of Enemy of the Sun when it came out in 1993 and played it for me, but I was too young to ‘get it’), and believe me when I tell you it sounded better than you can imagine at that volume. Unlike many bands, Neurosis records together as one unit, adding vocals and probably some minor guitar dubs later, which means that live it is essentially as if you are hearing the exact recording, but at the loudest volume imaginable. The record essentially is the live experience, or as close as one can get.

The set ran on without delay into “Times of Grace” and on through “Water is Not Enough” before I stopped slamming my head to the music and looked around the stage. Von Till appeared completely consumed by the sounds from his guitar, flailing his head like a whiplash while Kelly loomed over the front of the crowd like a bearded wraith and Edwardson manically roamed his piece of the stage. So far, sans the visual element that the band discarded a few years ago and the dreadlocks some of the members used to sport many years before that, the set is exactly what people have come to expect from the group.

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That familiarity was interrupted sharply when the 1987 ripper “Pain of Mind” kicked the audience into high gear. The violent hardcore riffs got a pretty good sized pit going (especially for a Neurosis show in 2016) and even some crowd surfing, while the highlight for me were Kelly’s vocals, which sounded more pissed off and enraged than ever. Neurosis kept the energy up for “To What End” (from 1990s The Word as Law), with the crowd chanting along to “Born of… MACHINE” almost loud enough to be heard over the band. Almost.

Between songs, the stage was completely black and the PA was awash with ambient drone from Landis. “Left to Wander” (from 2004’s The Eye of Every Storm) was up next, and brought the crowd back down with its quiet solemnity before transitioning into “At The Well”, which is probably my favorite song from the 2012 release Honor Found In Decay. After the brooding silence of the former song, the latter continued the mood before exploding at the end into a burst of repetition and what I can only describe as a solo by Landis, all while Kelly and Von Till screamed their lungs dry.

As the opening sample of “Takeahnase” began, the audience seemed to get a second wind. One of the reasons Neurosis has been around as long as they have is that their singular vision of the decay of modern society is extremely accurate, and they can expertly express that sentiment sonically. That vision became more focused in 1992 when Neurosis released ‘Souls at Zero’, from which ‘Takeahnase’ is taken. The song is an apocalyptic warning, and while they played it, I couldn’t help but think how relevant the message of “If we do not stop, correct and change some of these wrong doings now, we all gonna suffer..” is today, decades later. After the literal roaring of Edwardson and wall of sound at the end of the song, the stage went dark again until ‘Self Taught Infection’ launched us all back again to the early ‘Pain of Mind’ days of Neurosis. The ominous beginning sounded especially doomed, more so when it followed a song like ‘Takeahnase’. As the crowd erupted again, I decided to walk around the floor and check out different vantage points.

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After I settled in by stage right, they began to play the only cover song I have ever seen them play live: a desolate, lumbering take on the Joy Division tune “Day of the Lords” from The Word as Law. It was completely unexpected, yet fit in effortlessly with the rest of their set, and I saw more than a few folks in the crowd that lost whatever remaining brain cells they had left from earlier. Joy Division influenced Neurosis as much as Rudimentary Peni and Sabbath, and Neurosis made the song their own while keeping its themes in the forefront.

By then, I was starting to get winded. One can only be assaulted by Jungian archetypes at deafening levels for so long, after all. This isn’t a band that offers cheap thrills, and their music requires concentration, so between that mental energy and the sheer physicality of the sound it can be punishing to experience, but I got a third wind as Roeder kicked off “An Offering” (from the 2000 Sovereign EP). The opening drumming relented into another classic Neurosis push-pull between soft guitars and hard voices, before bursting wide open into a furious sludge riff that knocked the crowd out of their haze.

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“Through Silver in Blood” is a staple and a statement for the band, and as the looped machinery samples brought in the tribal drums, I was reminded of when I first saw them. The sight of Von Till pounding out his drums along with Roeder, the intensity of the main riff being constructed part by part before being torn to shreds, the rage of the verses and fire of the climax before the final drum circle cleanse, all retain their power over the decades even without the disturbing image projections behind them. Everyone in the place screamed the opening line and raged along while the band contorted themselves to the chaos. I expected this to be their last song, but Landis proved me wrong by ringing in the intro to “Stones From the Sky” (A Sun That Never Sets, 2001), and the group carried the song through to its schizophrenic conclusion full of brimstone, as if they hadn’t just played a two hour set. Landis especially poured out every last bit of emotion into his parts, practically melding with his gear during the final moments of the song. When it ended, just like at every Neurosis show, the lights went up, and the band left the stage without a word while the audience picked their brains off the floor.

This is supposed to be a review, and with that comes criticism, but I am honestly at a loss to find anything wrong with the show that night. I could say I wished that they had played this song or that song, but that would be pretty unfair (I do wish I had seen “To Crawl Under One’s Skin,” but they played it the next night. The third night was a combo of the first two sets). I could perhaps suggest that it would have been more demonstrative of their career if they had brought back the visual aspect for the occasion, but I believe they wanted to represent where they were at now, and bringing that back just for a few shows would be disingenuous. As it turned out, I really didn’t even notice them being gone anyway, and I don’t mean that as disrespect to the previous artists. They had their place, absolutely, but Neurosis has always been much more than just that component. They make art that materializes and manifests their suffering, and it has been with me through almost all of my own. Death, war, birth, healing, family loss, anxiety, fear, depression, and many of the other aspects of the human experience are all there in their music, and I consider myself lucky to have been able to watch them evolve.

They haven’t been a touring band for some time, but they will be playing similar sets on limited dates at Roadburn, and all I can say is, you’re in for a treat.

—Matt Schmahl

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